In Defense of the New ROOTS

Until recently, I was never fond of “slave stories.” As an African American Studies major in college, I purposely shied away from taking any courses focused on Slavery or captivity until my very last semester. It was not that I was at all apathetic to the cause and the toils of our ancestors, I just felt that I already knew the story, in full.
I was completely wrong.
This week, rapper Snoop Dogg released a video, calling for audiences to boycott the new 2016 rendition of the miniseries ROOTS, Alex Haley’s timeless generation spanning story of his direct ancestor Kunta Kinte and the plight of his descendants in the United States.

Snoop’s reasoning, (like mine) was that the historical representation of African Americans in the media have erred on the side of subservient and submissive.
As Snoop describes in his video, “I don’t understand America. They just want to keep showing the abuse that we took hundreds and hundreds of years ago.”
While it may be painful to endure the pain of our ancestors, there is one thing that Snoop Dogg is missing, that some viewers may catch upon critical review: ROOTS is not about abuse, but rather about resistance.
The iconic scene in ROOTS repeated and parodied in multiple pop culture references (like Family Guy and Chappelle’s Show), involves the whipping of Kunta Kinte and the coercion by his White overseer to adopt an English given name, Toby. The focus on this scene quintessentially captures the pain of ROOTS, but misses the point of Haley’s story.
Kunta Kinte’s real legacy is embodied in the relationship with his daughter, Kizzy. Kunta taught Kizzy full phrases in his native tongue, instructed her on paddling a canoe upstream, and prompted her quick escape on horseback. We may surmise that although his civil rights had been compromised, there were some elements of his life from Africa that Kunta Kinte was able to hold on to upon his capture and delivery to the New World. More importantly, he gave her the best gift that could have been given to a first generation African American in the 1800’s: An identity.
Kunta Kinte (Malachi Kirby), and his daughter Kizzy (Emily Crutchfield)
This theme of this emerging, resistant identity is carried throughout both iterations of the ROOTS tale. The names of Kunta Kinte, his family members, his birthplace and connection to the Mandinke people of West Africa are solid vestiges in Alex Haley’s family and now have found their way into a new Generation of American Popular Culture.
That brings to light the second criticism that has been applied to the saga: Why do we need a new ROOTS?
The 2016 remake of the 1977 series is on its surface more not very different from the first. The characters and story-line remain for the most part unchanged. The special effects and costume design has advanced only slightly in the last 40 years, and much of dialog is standard. Nevertheless, I noticed a slightly more engaging note about this new series: the characters are a lot more believable.
British Actor Malachi Kirby who is of Jamaican descent, is definitely more believable as a Mandike warrior. His accent, and development of broken English is a lot easier to follow than the original Middle American English spoken by the first Kunta Kinte, Levar Burton (of Reading Rainbow fame). This Kunta Kinte also looks the part. His costumes during the scenes shot in historical ‘Africa,’ are brilliant robes that seem characteristic of the Islamic men from the Gambia region.
Then there’s the larger cultural implication. There exists a group of brand new viewers (and likely a lot of younger people like myself who weren’t around for the first ROOTS in 1977), that have yet to be exposed to the stories being told in roots.
Finally, as a genealogist, and an African American genealogist at that….we need our stories TOLD! I don’t mean this as a cliché. In order to research my own history, I need the collaborative effort of the stories of other people of color in my family, and from my ancestral homes to participate in the work of creating stories. From talking to other genealogists over the years, quite a few of them cite ROOTS as their springboard, their inspiration to actually find their own Kunta Kinte. In 2016, that impetus also involves DNA testing (which is being given away as a prize by the HISTORY Channel in part of the promotion of thenew ROOTS series.)
With those two tools, genealogy and DNA testing, I’m sure that we can continue to help bridge the gap for thousands of African Americans living here in the United States, and abroad. But we need stories like ROOTs to continue to inspire us.